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April 2014

Leading Thoughts

7 Safety Leadership Mind-Sets: Activating an Organization

By Anil Mathur and Robert Pater

Just as the mind directs the body, mind-sets in an organization direct culture, actions and performance. Ultimately, the role of leaders is to help others improve their performance beyond its current trajectory, that is, to produce results beyond the drift. To best accomplish this, leaders must begin by taking the lead themselves. This process can begin as you read this. Ultimate safety stems from changes in how people think, and the safety leader's mind-set sets the tone for others' approaches.

Certainly, changing actions are important (e.g, utilizing tools the best ways, creating future adjustments, high-grading usable strength, boosting physical balance). But when it comes to the big three mind-set, skillset and toolset mind-set dominates because individuals' actions are limited by what their mind-set considers possible. Mind-set drives (and limits) perceptions and shapes where people look and what they see. In other words, what individuals see is what they react to and what they direct their attention to.

The skillsets and toolsets a person applies and then how and what s/he communicates is the product of a mind-set. For example, PPE may be readily available and workers fully trained in its use, but if an employee's mind-set is "this is really not needed" or "it's too much bother" or "it'll just get in the way and slow me down," that employee will be less likely to use PPE. Similarly, if a person has a proven medication for an illness but doesn't think s/he needs to take it, s/he is less likely to improve.

Generating Safety Leadership Mind-Sets

Management guru Tom Peters wrote that in all of his years working with companies, everything he has seen and learned could be boiled down to five words: Attention is all there is. This means that where you put your attention determines what you see and, therefore, what you respond to. Change someone's attention and his/her actions will follow. This is also the main principle behind effective internal martial arts. Change someone's attention and perception and you more readily control their body, even when the opponent is bigger, stronger and otherwise potentially more physically skilled. Smaller-statured adepts have repeatedly shown to easily defend themselves from bigger, younger, faster and more skilled opponents by doing small things that controlled the attacker's attention and perceptions. Coauthor Robert Pater has heard martial arts instructors frequently teach, "Lead the mind and the body will follow" or "Control their perceptions and you control their body."

On a safety level, think of what the aviation industry terms target fixation, which has been blamed for numerous fatal crashes. Safety investigations have revealed that being overly focused on one set of instruments has prevented seasoned professionals from seeing more critical information. Staring too intently where one doesn't want to go ("I have to avoid this at all costs!") can ironically result in that person fixating, then actually colliding with that target. Think about personal incidents, injurious or not, to see how this principle might operate in the actions of drivers, pedestrians or machine operators.

Yet, even with high-demand, high-paced work and swirling attention demands, some leaders can significantly elevate and sustain world-class safety performance and cultures. For example, under coauthor Anil Mathur's leadership, Alaska Tanker Co. (ATC) has had one lost-time injury (broken finger) in 11 years of work on listing and rolling seas while exposed to harsh environments, with unionized employees working long hours. Similar performance is possible for other companies.

The siren call to change others is seductive, but it is limited without the leader first learning to control his/her own mind-set. You can't readily force others to do what you cannot do for yourself. As one manufacturing employee asked, "How can you help someone get to a place you yourself have never been?"

With that in mind, best leaders understand and embrace the need to first develop their own leadership mind-set. Here are the seven mind-sets of a high-level safety leader.

1) From "Why bother?" to "I can make a difference." The best leaders truly believe that they can improve the safety and health of those around them. This doesn't mean they are omnipotent, that they have a magic wand that will fix all, or that they just parrot the right words and remain disillusioned or feel hopeless. Rather, it is that they know they can take steps that will bear positive results. When leaders believe their approach and that what they do really counts, their actions become a potent and visible force for change.

Few leaders who are in the "why bother" mode admit this to themselves. The first stage of leadership involves self-assessment and self-acknowledgment of where you fall short.

2) I can't just go through the motions others will notice (and will do the same). It is better to do nothing than to engage in pretend actions (e.g., sleepwalking through safety meetings, introductions or investigations). Best leaders know that complacency begins at home; acting half-heartedly creates a negative model for others.

Sleepwalking safety leaders must wake up, either by themselves or with the help of others, and not accept living and leading lackadaisically. ATC encourages a mind-set of "I will make a difference" within everyone in the company. Knowing that tying up workers is inefficient, leaders can dispassionately uncover and reduce those mixed messages that exist in every organization. No more flavors-of-the-month or "Safety is number one! except when we're really busy."

3) I can personally help people work and live more safely. This entails not settling for half-hearted efforts in themselves or anyone else, but embodying a passion for safety excellence. One path to developing this mind-set is repositioning safety as more than just preventing outcomes that no one really believes will happen to them (e.g.,"I have done this 10,000 times just fine"; "I'm too young, strong and smart to get hurt"). We think of highest-level safety leaders as people living their lives with energy and enthusiasm, being able to apply all their resources toward completing tasks that are important to them.

While leaders can't make others think or act differently, their commitment and belief in themselves casts a powerful pull toward others' safety mind-set, at work and at home.

4) Something magical happens when you care enough to make a difference. Genuine concern for others comes through. In fact, the authors have found that when it comes to trust (an eroding commodity in recent years), one of all organizational member's first (perhaps underlying) assessments of leaders is, Does s/he care about my well-being?

Leaders can tangibly demonstrate their care by learning individual workers' backgrounds, interests, hopes and concerns; being honest, sharing whatever information they reasonably can; leading from the front by first asking change from themselves then inviting it from others; communicating respect for the challenges others are trying to overcome (e.g., during a safety investigation, note what someone did right that prevented injuries or damage from being even worse).

In addition, leaders' quick responses to employee requests for information or improvements shows they care for their employees (e.g., explain reasons why change may not occur in near future or expected time frames for new equipment or procedures). Find ways to publicly acknowledge and incorporate the existing expertise of employees, both at work tasks and in-home hobbies. This is the root of establishing a pervasive no-fault, near-miss culture.

5) I pay attention, even to trifles. Aphorisms remind us that details matter and that small changes can result in large differences (e.g., "For want of a nail, the war was lost"; "From little acorns, oaks grow"). In this vein, highest-level safety leaders understand that even small attention lapses can lead to terrible consequences, in both process and personal safety. So they start the cultural current toward increasing mindfulness by working on their own skills in directing attention.

This begins with leaders applying energy and focus to discern small organizational changes, such as silences shading more toward tension than relaxation, workers holding back on feedback or reporting, increases in sniping or put-downs, or employees working or on automatic pilot.

This alertness approach can lead to workers becoming more attuned to changing sounds of operating equipment, propriocentrically (through self-monitoring a range of internal cues) sensing small hitches in gait, feeling of machines' vibration levels that are somehow different from the usual, or coworkers seemingly emotionally deflating or displaying lack of hope.

6) "I develop leaders, not followers." Tom Peters also wrote, "The best leaders don't create followers; they create other leaders." The authors heartily agree, as does seemingly every super-leader they have met. This means moving away from micromanaging and moving toward developing trust in others to make better decisions (within parameters, not just allowing anything to go). When leaders allow others to offload projects (e.g., developing peer safety leaders), they know the latter will never do things exactly the way the leader would; they might do some things better, or worse, but certainly differently. This creates an atmosphere in which people develop the skills and self-confidence to become better safety leaders; it also generates creativity and organizational energy.

7) It begins with me. When I change so will others. This incorporates the previous six mind-sets. Most people are familiar with the expression, "With great power comes great responsibility." Super-leaders understand the reverse: when a leader takes great responsibility for him/herself, s/he accrues greater power. (Think of power as the ability to change the future.)

Distributing Safety Leadership Mind-Sets

Because people look to leaders, the actions of leaders ripple out teachings, intended or not. Instead of doing what leaders say, workers tend to do what they think leaders actually want. It is clear that highest-level leaders have the mind-set of leading from within, first by change within themselves, then by change from within a group (e.g., grassroots level).

Continuously Monitor & Adjust Your Mind-Set

When leaders exemplify high-level safety mind-sets, they earn the credibility to ask the same of others. Ironically, they rarely have to demand this; often, when leaders change, the organizational balance point shifts. Desperation-generated exhortations diminish and others begin to assume more self-direction. People begin to ask of themselves, What can I do to help everyone be safer and more fulfilled?

Because biases typically leak out in actions (which can be as inadvertent as slight sneers or rolling eyeballs), leaders must internally monitor their own thoughts and attitudes. They know where they default (e.g., when there is an injury, is this likely due to failure on the employee's part?), they watch their underlying assumptions, they know what sets them off emotionally, and they make allowances for and rebalance these as calmly and quickly as possible. Leaders can use calm self-talk to challenge and recalibrate their own predispositions.

For example, several leaders report recalibrating old mind-sets on the spot. If they wonder what is the matter with the employee for having an incident, they might immediately catch this mental reaction, then dismiss it. They would then think the worker acted based on old habits and messages, and that the company could have done other things that would have helped the worker avoid this incident.

Change Energy & Light Up the Workforce

Dislodging old mind-sets and nudging in new ones requires energy. The formula for this is: passion + committed mind-sets + skills = significant change. Conversely, low energy = high likelihood of stasis. Leaders can bring in new ideas, methods and tools, not haphazardly, but as vehicles for exciting, stimulating and challenging new ways of considering existing tasks. Sometimes, this entails doing something unexpected, such as seeding improvement pilot projects throughout the company.

On a personal level, change in physical actions can correspondingly change energy. For example, when a person is sad, simply moving can help lift listlessness (one benefit of exercise). Similarly, studies report that smiling can actually alleviate a negative mood. And shifting posture can significantly change outlook (e.g., from slumped to natural S-curve).

Again, remember that lighting up brains starts with the leader. As Arnold Glasow said, "Success isn't a result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire."

Catch & Correct

In addition to the way that self-aware leaders monitor and influence their own mind-sets, they must do the same for others. For example, veteran workers often have longstanding memories that form expectations. Whenever leaders hear, "This is the way we've always done this" or "I remember when . . ." or "That's what always happens . . ." it is time to catch and correct. That is, perform a system update, serve notice and remind workers (e.g., "I understand, but that was then and we have changed"; "Things are different now; safety is as important as being productive").

Words have power. Consider changing phrasing from "this caused the incident" to "this contributed to the incident." The latter is more logical thinking and opens the door to more fruitful root-cause analysis and prevention. Apply this open-ended thinking principle to both verbal and written communications.

Look for past-based default employee reactions. Expect to make these updates more frequently in the beginning of the mind-set change process, then less often as you progress. Similarly, communicate gentle and solid reminders when others grumble that things never change; talk about tangible progress they can relate to compared to past actions. Share current project information for further improvement, and leading indicators/milestones that lead to positive movement.

Super-leaders continually refine their own safety leadership mind-sets, then help distribute this so that everyone throughout the company is inspired to do the same.

Anil Mathur is CEO of Alaska Tanker Co. (, acknowledged as the safest oil tanker company in the world, recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard, AFL-CIO, states of Alaska and Washington, National Safety Council (as a CEO Who Gets It), ASSE (President's Award) and more.

Robert Pater, M.A., is managing director of SSA/MoveSMART ( Clients include ADT, Alcoa, Amtrak, Domtar, DuPont, Harley-Davidson, Honda, Johnson & Johnson, Marathon Oil, Mead Westvaco, Michelin/BF Goodrich, MSC Industrial Supply, Pitney Bowes, Textron, United Airlines, U.S. Steel, Xerox and more. He has presented at ASSE conferences and delivered webinars. His book, Leading From Within, has been published in five languages.


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